For the fifth consecutive season, Howard University stands one victory away from an NCAA tournament playoff berth. And for a fifth consecutive season, Howard must defeat North Carolina A&T in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title game to gain the berth.
"I think we are about due," said Bison Coach A.B. Williamson, minutes after his team put on a second-half clinic in dismantling a determined but outmanned Maryland-Eastern Shore team, 83-55, in an MEAC tournament semifinal game at the Civic Center. "I just have a gut feeling we are going to win. We played a good tough game tonight and if we can sustain that, well . . . "
A&T also came up with a superior effort and sent Bethune-Cookman home with a 75-66 triumph to set up the title clash between the top-seeded teams. A&T fell behind, 61-60, with 2:53 to play, but the Aggies converted 11 free throws in the final minutes to secure the victory.
A&T (21-7) and Howard (18-9) will play for the title and the automatic NCAA berth Sunday at 3:15 p.m. A&T has beaten the Bison in four straight title games.
Williamson was especially pleased his team did a turnabout after a lackluster first half in which Howard stood around watching the hustling Hawks get the rebounds and hit uncontested jump shots. Maryland-Eastern Shore led at the half, 29-27.
"UMES executed well in the first half, slowed the tempo and hit some shots," Williamson said. "I was glad we caught up and didn't go in at the half losing by eight or nine points."
UMES (4-24), which upset Delaware State to gain the semifinals, took a seven-point lead several times in the first half. But the Bison shut the Hawks down, got their transition game going and controlled the backboards.
Fred Hill had 13 of his game-high 19 points after halftime, 10 of them coming during a seven-minute stretch when Howard outscored the Hawks, 21-4, as the Bison gained a 49-35 lead with 12 minutes to play.
Derek Caracciolo, who has been inconsistent much of the season, also was a big factor with 16 points and seven rebounds. He made all six of his field goal attempts and four of five free throw attempts.
"Fred hit those key shots in that stretch and Derek came on to do a good job inside," Williamson said. "We need good games from them if we expect to win. We got the ball inside more and that opened up our outside game."
Caracciolo's short inside basket put Howard up, 32-31, early in the second half and the MEAC regular-season runners-up never looked back.
"We missed a lot of shots in the first half," Caracciolo said. "Coach told us we had to pick up the pace. We played a tougher man-to-man and overplayed our men to cut off the passing lanes. The defensive pressure made it easier for our offense to score."
Howard's full-court press stopped Donnell Boney (17 points) from penetrating and getting open shots. With Boney shut down, the Hawks had no one else to score.
"The press opened up the game for us," Hill said. "We tightened up on them and we began to control the game. We were tight in the first half and I relaxed and took the good shots."
Hill looked very relaxed on every 20-footer he tried. He hit four jumpers and a driving layup during the Bison's surge early in the second half.
Baskets by Hill and Caracciolo, free throws by Robert Jones and William Stuart and a three-point play by Jeff Williams (11 points) sent the Bison out to a 59-38 lead with eight minutes to play.
"Near the end of the season, I called the guys in and asked them what they wanted to do," Williamson said. "They said they wanted to run more and play a pressing defense. I said fine."
Howard beat the Hawks twice during the regular season (by a combined total of 33 points). After shooting 35 percent in the first half, the Bison made 19 of 27 field goal tries in a 56-point second half.